divine life

Four Secrets About Spiritual Growth Rivers Whisper To Us, Part 1

Have you ever watched the Disney animated movie "Pocahontas"?  It's a delightful recounting of the famous historical legend involving Captain John Smith and the native Americans who helped him establish one of the first English settlements in America.  In the movie, Pocahontas, the chief's daughter, sings a song titled "Just Around the Riverbend."  It's a profound picture of the challenge surrounding change and choices we face in life, using the river as a powerful symbol.  Here's the clip. [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=89U_vyP3To0]


Most spiritual traditions see the river as a metaphor for spirituality.  For example, the Judaeo-Christian scriptures (in Genesis) begin earth history in a Garden as the first product of God’s creative work.  In the middle of the Garden is a river, flowing between two trees—the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  The river flows from the Garden, watering it, and then as it leaves the Garden it divides into four branches that flow into the four points of the compass—a symbol of the river as a source of life and vitality for the whole world.

These same scriptures (in Revelation) end in a City—the City of God—at the heart of which is God’s throne.  Flowing from that throne is a river whose water is the water of life, pure, clear as crystal.  The river courses down the center of the main street.  On each side of the river grows a tree of life, each bearing 12 crops of fruit, a fresh crop every month.  And the leaves of those trees are used as medicine to heal the nations.  There’s no splitting or dividing of the river this time because all of the world is now encompassed by the City of God, with the residents along the banks of this river enjoying constant access to its life-giving energy.

So in Scripture, these Rivers are powerful symbols of the divine life, the energy and power of God to nourish all of life.  And in-between these beginning and ending stories, every time rivers are mentioned, there is always spiritual significance.  Rivers have great meaning for spirituality, growth, health and vitality.


So as we think about the spiritual metaphor of rivers, let’s first notice the complete journey of a river.  It begins as a spring of water high up in the mountains.  In all kinds of mythologies, legends, and religious stories mountains symbolize the higher realms of consciousness.  They are the home of Gods and Wisdom, between the realms of Heaven and Earth.

For example, in the Bible, there ‘s a Hebrew poem (Psalm 121) which begins, “I will lift up my eyes to the mountains; does my help come from there?  My help comes from the LORD who made heaven and earth.”  The poet, echoing the religious traditions of his contemporary cultures, recognizes the sacred nature of the mountaintop, the home of the gods.  But unlike his religious competitors, he sees his God, Yahweh, ruling the mountaintops—Yahweh, Creator of heaven and earth.

The highest mountain in the Holy Land is Mt. Hermon, about 9200 ft. All of the region’s religions viewed Mt. Hermon as a sacred mountain.  Because of its height it captures a great deal of precipitation in a very dry area of the world.  Mount Hermon has seasonal winter and spring snow falls which cover all three of its peaks for most of the year. Melt water from the snow-covered western and southern slopes seeps into the rock channels and pores, feeding springs at the base of the mountain, which form streams and rivers. These merge to become the Jordan River, in which many sacred activities took place.

Mount Hermon is most likely the site of the Transfiguration, where Jesus, according to the New Testament, took three of his disciples, Peter, James, and John, up on a high mountain for prayer during which he became radiantly white with divine glory and was spoken to by God and conversed with Moses and Elijah who had appeared beside him.

So mountaintops have been seen as sacred places, the home of the gods.  And rivers find their source in those places.  This high mountain spring of water is water which has been filtered and cleansed by way of a multi-year (and perhaps, multi-century) journey through the womb of Mother Earth. When this water finally emerges from Mother Earth it is Sacred, Pure and Life-Giving (as the many spiritual traditions believe).

After leaving its mountain spring, these waters join with other waters from other mountain springs to eventually form a river.  A river does not flow in a straight line, it has many twists and turns. There are periods when the river experiences turbulent, chaotic and disturbing times (rapids); there are periods when it experiences twists, turns and pauses; and then there are periods when the river flows peacefully, smoothly and calmly; there are sections where the river expands into lakes with an inlet and an outlet and then passes on.  Significantly enough, the twists and turns are Nature's way of keeping her life-giving waters healthy:  they create the eddies that aerate the water which is so vital to the nourishment and preservation of all the people, animals and vegetation which rely on the river for sustenance.

Think of all the diverse kinds of eco-systems that flourish along the miles and miles of River banks:  water fowl, birds, fish, animals, trees, plants, flowers, human beings in cities and villages.  Almost every life form imaginable.  And with the ebb and flow of the river goes the ebb and flow of these lives.

Once the river has completed all of the twists and turns of its long journey it finally empties into the sea.  The point at which the river enters the sea is called it's delta.  The delta is a triangular area which forms at the mouth of the river.  The word delta is derived from a Greek symbol, also in the shape of a triangle, which means "Change.”  Upon passing through its delta the river "changes.”  Its individuality comes to an end as it merges with all of the other rivers which have also ended their long journeys, to become part of the one great sea.

With such a rich and diverse path, is it any wonder that the river has become a deep metaphor for the spiritual life.  In my next post, I'll suggest four secrets the river whispers to us about what it means to experience a healthy spirituality.  Stay tuned.

Is There More To Life Than What You See?

There's a profound dynamic to sailing that goes beyond the scale of the boat, the engineering, the rigging, all the equipment that helps the boat go fast and stable, that goes beyond even the condition of the water and even the crew.  It is in fact, ironically enough, that which cannot be seen.  And without it, there would be no sailing.  Figured out what it is? Exactly.  Wind.  It's the whole force behind sailing.  You can't see it.  You can only feel it and notice its impact.  And believe me, it's quite a force to be reckoned with.  I've at times cursed it and hailed it (depending of course how well I'm doing leveraging it).  And I've been deathly afraid of it (when my boat appeared to be "going down" in the storm).  All of these responses to something you can't even see - but obviously acknowledge is there.

There's an intriguing spiritual dimension to this reality.  And of all people to acknowledge it is Christopher Hitchens, a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, most known for his self-proclaimed role as one of the New Atheists called to debunk the world of religion and religious thought, as most recently revealed in his manifesto book God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything.  His primary sparring partners tend to be religious conservatives and apologists for fundamentalism.

In a recent interview with a liberal Christian minister he made some surprising philosophical and spiritual observations of sharing a mutual appreciation for "the transcendent" and "the numinous" (which literally means, "surpassing comprehension or understanding; mysterious; filled with or characterized by a sense of a supernatural presence: a numinous place; Spiritually elevated; sublime"):  terms that Hitchens himself introduced into the conversation, not vice versa.

When asked about this, he commented:

"It's innate in us to be overawed by certain moments, say, at evening on a mountaintop or sunset on the boundaries of the ocean. Or, in my case, looking through the Hubble telescope at those extraordinary pictures. We have a sense of awe and wonder at something beyond ourselves, and so we should, because our own lives are very transient and insignificant. That's the numinous, and there's enough wonder in the natural world without any resort to the supernatural being required."

And then he surprisingly took it one step further.  "Everybody has had the experience at some point when they feel that there's more to life than just matter." More to life than just what you can see?

This is quite a profound observation from a person who has refused to embrace acceptance of anything supernatural.  More to life than just matter? Is Hitchens really saying what he seems to be saying here, that "the numinous" refers to the sense that there's something more to our existence than just the material world?

The ancient Hebrews (in Jewish scripture) had no problem acknowledging this reality.  In fact, to them, the scriptures never talked about "spiritual life."  Spirituality was NOT simply one of several aspects of life.  All of life was Sacred, God-breathed, infused with divine wonder and awe.  So they talked about only life.  As my friend Samir Selmanovic points out (in his book It's Really All About God), "the Hebrews loved both God and life.  Obeying God meant being fully human, with every fiber of one's being alive.  One could not experience one without the other...To tune in to human life is to tune in to God.  Existence itself is a sacred place."

There's more to life than just matter.  There's a Spirit to all life.  So embracing life deeply and passionately is a highly spiritual practice.  And historically (among spiritual traditions), this practice has been called "worship."  Living life with a sense that life is sacred, intentionally giving value to life and the Giver of life, embracing the awe and wonder that there is More than simply our existence, that there is a Life Force that flows all around us and in us and through us.  Worship is the spiritual practice of embracing God and showing value to the Divine life.

There's more to life than just matter - worship - embracing "the transcendent" and the "numinous" - giving honor to Life.  Renowned atheist Christopher Hitchens acknowledges this reality (in his own way).  I definitely concur.

In the spiritual community in San Francisco I'm a part of, Second Wind's "W" core value (in our core values acronymn S.E.C.O.N.D. W.I.N.D.) stands for "W.orship."  It's a desire to value living life with a sense of the divine, learning the art of living all of life as sacred, embracing the worldview (as Einstein pointed out) that the Universe is in fact "friendly," that God is the ultimate Force of love and compassion and goodness.  So we're trying to find meaningful and intentional ways to live out this value and important paradigm.  We think this value will empower us to love extravagantly and serve unselfishly to make this world a better place.

And in the end, isn't there something centering and grounding to sense that there is more to life than just matter?  That, as my friends in AA are so wise to regularly affirm, there's a Higher Power beyond myself, greater than myself, that nourishes and sustains and empowers my life toward greater self responsibility leading to wholeness and transformation?

When it comes to sailing, I can tell you that the most effective sailors are those that not only acknowledge the wind but learn how to live with it well, who embrace it and honor it and respect it - who learn the art of leaning into it.

What would it look like in tangible terms for you to embrace this core value, to affirm that there is more to life than matter and what you can see?  How would it impact your daily existence, your relationships, your concerns, your hopes and dreams?  What are specific ways you tend to show deeper value for Life, to carve out space to acknowledge and pay attention and affirm the Sacred in life?  When is the last time you actually thought about there being a Power greater than yourself and expressed respect and honor for It?